West Bend Art Museum

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Segment from pages 20-23 of 1994 essay titled "George Raab: Wisconsin Artist" by Peter C. Merrill, Ph.D., Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida. The essay segment is contained in the Museum's catalogue prepared for the exhibition George Raab: Prominence in 19th Century Regional Art. Essay and image reprinted with permission of the West Bend Art Museum.

 

George Raab: Wisconsin Artist

by Peter C. Merrill

 

In 1912 Raab was married to Helen (Hammond) Ware (1889-1970), an attractive young woman who was twenty-three years his junior. She had been previously married and had a son, Kirby. After Helen's marriage to Raab, Kirby was adopted by his stepfather and took the name Kirby Raab. Before his marriage in 1912, Raab had lived with his widowed sister, Lucy Raab Bode, at 429 - 14th Street. After the marriage, he lived for two years at 4601 Lisbon Avenue. Still later, at about the time of World War I, the family lived in an apartment in the basement of the Layton Art Gallery. Years later, Kirby Raab would recall how the gallery had been his childhood playground.[9]

Raab's brothers, Fulton and Franklin, were living with their families in Sheboygan at this time, so Raab had reason to keep up contact with his home town. On September 1,1921, the Sheboygan Press reported that Raab had donated two of his paintings to the local public library. The two paintings have now been restored.[10]

Around 1920 Raab put out a promotional brochure advertising a series of five illustrated lectures. The topics of the lecture series were as follows: (1) Egyptian and Babylonian Art, (2) Greek Art, (3) Roman and Byzantine Art, (4) the Art of the Italian Renaissance, and (5) The Feminine in Art. In December 1921, the Sheboygan Press reported that Raab had recently given the first lecture of the series at the invitation of the local Women's Club and was scheduled to give the next lecture the following month. (left: Winter Sport, hand-colored block print, 12 x 9 inches, Mr. and Mrs. Proctor K. Raab)

In 1920 the directors of the Layton Art Gallery decided to open the Layton School of Art on the premises of the gallery. Charlotte Partridge, who had been teaching art at Milwaukee-Downer College, was chosen as the director of the school Apparently Raab was not in favor of the project. Tensions built between Raab and the directors until the Milwaukee newspapers broke the story on June 17, 1922 that Raab's resignation had been requested. The request, announced when Raab was out of town on vacation, surprised the local art colony. In July Raab ended his twenty-year stint as curator of the gallery and Charlotte Partridge was appointed his successor. Speaking on behalf of the directors, the architect William Schuchardt stated that the board had taken this action with great reluctance but that it felt a younger person would be better able to implement the museum's new policy of active service to the community. Raab at first maintained a tasteful silence, but went on the offensive after Partridge contributed an article to the Milwaukee Fine Arts Monthly in which she claimed that Frederick Layton, if he were alive, would have endorsed the gallery's new policies. Raab declared to the press that the well-known wishes of Mr. Layton had been discarded as antiquated and that his name had been grafted upon a school that he would have scorned. To prove his point, Raab produced a letter from Layton in which he rejected a proposal to have Sunday gallery lectures at the Layton Art Gallery.[11]

Raab now occupied himself by teaching at the State Normal School, now the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where Alexander Mueller was head of the art department. On July 16, 1923, however, the Milwaukee Leader informed its readers that Raab had accepted a post as director of the Art Institute and Art School In Springfield, Illinois.[12] By this time Raab appears to have become separated from his wife, who remained in Milwaukee with her son when Raab departed for Springfield in September 1923. They were divorced the following year. Helen Raab appears to have been financially independent. In 1914 she had established the Milwaukee Open Forum, a successful speakers bureau, and in 1929 she began to acquire land near Wisconsin Dells. In 1943 she purchased a Victorian mansion at Lake Delton and following World War II she was vice-president of Duck Trails, Inc., an enterprise which provided amphibious boat excursions to tourists in the Dells area.

After leaving Milwaukee, Raab remained in Springfield for two years and then moved to nearby Decatur, Illinois, where he installed himself in a home on West Prairie Avenue. He was now director of the Decatur Art Institute and also joined the faculty of Millikin University. The Decatur Art Institute had been established in 1919 by a bequest of Anna Millikin, who donated her mansion for the purpose. The historic building, now known as the James Millikin homestead, is presently used as a museum, the art school having been closed in 1969. After settling in Decatur, Raab had his own studio in a barn behind the Art Institute.

Nearby Millikin University had been established in 1903 with funds provided by James Millikin. The 1926 university catalogue lists Raab as Lecturer in Fine Arts and the catalogues from 1928 - 1932 list him as Acting Director of the School of Fine Arts and later as Acting Head of the Department of Fine Arts.

Pictures of Raab from this period show him as a dapper figure, neatly dressed. wearing a light homburg hat with his dark suit, and always sporting a cane. Some impression of his life in Decatur can be gleaned from his letters to his son Kirby in Milwaukee.[13] In addition to his regular duties as a teacher and administrator, Raab continued to paint and to exhibit his work. He served as a judge for art exhibited at state and county fairs, painted murals for the music college, spoke before audiences of school children, and gave Sunday afternoon gallery lectures at the Decatur Art Institute. He was popular with the students at Millikin University and in February 1927 wrote to Kirby that the enrollment in his art appreciation class had increased to eighty. He was content with the teaching routine at the university and wrote that although he had his hands full, he was perfectly free to teach what he liked and to do it the way he liked. For recreation he enrolled in an evening Spanish class and took walks in the picturesque countryside around Decatur. When the Milwaukee interior decorator George Mann Niedecken was working on a project near Decatur, he stopped by Raab's studio for a brief visit. Raab had known Niedecken since the days when they had both been students at the Wisconsin Art Institute. In March 1926 Raab wrote his son asking him to check with the Krumbholz Gallery in Milwaukee about some of Raab's pictures that were needed for a show in Decatur. Raab often sent Kirby money and appears to have paid his college expenses.

While teaching in Decatur, Raab regularly spent summer vacations in Milwaukee, where he kept up his contacts and arranged to have his work exhibited. On August 2, 1928 the Milwaukee Leader reported that he was scheduled to have a one-man show at the Milwaukee Art Institute the following month, and on July 28, 1935 the Milwaukee Journal reported on a recent show of Raab's block prints at the institute. In Decatur, Raab was nothing less then a public figure. He addressed the members of the University Club, spoke on the radio, and contributed articles to a local newspaper. His opinions on art and his suggestions on how to appreciate art were frequently quoted in the local press. When someone in Decatur denounced the Transfer House on Lincoln Square as freakish, Raab was quick to pronounce the building an architectural gem and to point out its derivation from the Dome of the Chain in Jerusalem. He had always been interested in architecture and during the 1930s did a number of block prints depicting architectural subjects in Decatur.

In May 1937 Raab retired and went back to Milwaukee. The last years of his life were spent with his sister at 3319 North Holton Street, where he also had a studio. In 1937 he was honored by being elected a life member of the Milwaukee Art Institute and by being named an honorary board member.

Raab died in Milwaukee on September 24, 1943 and was buried in Sheboygan. The pallbearers at his funeral included Alfred Pelikan and Francesco Spicuzza, two well-known Milwaukee artists.[14] Also present was Albert Otto Tiemann, who had taught at the Wisconsin School of Art at the same time as Raab. Raab's former wife and a number of his relatives from Sheboygan were also in attendance .

By a fortunate combination of circumstances, a large number of Raab's works have been preserved. By contrast, the paintings produced by Raab's Milwaukee contemporary, Alexander Mueller, have largely disappeared. The Milwaukee Art Museum possesses an important group of Raab's work, including Veil of Snow (1910), one of Raab's best and most frequently reproduced paintings. The painting shows snow falling on the buildings across the street from the Milwaukee Art Institute in the 700 block of North Jefferson Street. Works by Raab have also found their way into a number of other institutional collections, including those at the West Bend Art Museum, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, the Sheboygan County Historical Museum, the Milwaukee County Historical Society, the Milwaukee Public Library, the Mead Public Library in Sheboygan, the James Millikin Homestead in Decatur, Illinois and the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, Illinois.

Most of Raab's works are landscapes, chiefly scenes in Wisconsin and Illinois, though there is one painting of a German scene and a block print showing a farm scene in France. His earlier landscapes were usually in oil, though by the 1930s he worked increasingly in watercolor and with block prints. His many portraits include a self-portrait and more than a dozen portraits of family members, including his mother, his sister, Lucy, and several portraits of his wife.

During the 1920s Raab typically received $300 for portraits, so these commissions were an important source of income. Among his clients in Milwaukee were the heiress Lenore Harrison Cawker (1873-1932) and the local historian William George Bruce (1856-1949]. Other Milwaukeeans who sat for portraits were John and Bertha Marr, Judge George H. Noyes and Miss Lillian Sabin, whose portrait is now in the Milwaukee Art Museum. Raab also produced a number of low relief portraits in bronze, including portraits of Gertrude Bresler and Lillian Gabriella Bresler, daughters of the art dealer Frank H. Bresler. In 1898, shortly after his return from study in Europe, Raab painted a portrait of Frank Stone, an early librarian in Sheboygan.

George Raab belonged to a generation of academically trained artists whose formative years were spent before the advent of such modern movements as expressionism and abstract art. The block print landscapes and cityscapes that he produced during the Depression era definitely reflect the changing taste of the times, but Raab's painting was turned toward nineteenth-century models; the Barbizon School, the French Impressionists, Munich realism, and the American realist tradition. Raab was a competent craftsman and a significant regional painter. It is fortunate that so many of his works have survived, as they provide us, among other things, with a colorful Insight into the milieu in which they were produced.

Endnotes:

9. Milwaukee Sentinel, 10 May, 1971, sect. 1, 9. 19

10. Sheboygan Press, 1 September, 1921. Milwaukee Journal, 11 April, 1948, sect. 7, p, 5.

11. Wisconsin News, 12 October, 1922.

12. Milwaukee Leader, 16 July, 1923, p. 4.

13. A collection of these letters, written between 1923 and 1927, is in the possession of Jeune Nowak Wussow of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.

14. Obituaries can be found in the Milwaukee Journal, 25 September, 1943, p. 5, and the Milwaukee Sentinel, 25 September, 1943, sect. 2, p. 1, and the Sheboygan Press, 25 September, 1943.

 

About the Author:

Peter C. Merrill, who currently resides in Boca Raton, Fl, was born in 1930 in Evanston, IL. He was affiliated with the Department of Languages and Linguistics, Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, FL from 1968 to 1998, retiring as a full professor.

Dr. Merrill received a B.A. in Anthropology from Yale University, a M.S. in Linguistics from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in Linguistics from Columbia University.

He is an expert on 19th-century German-language writers in the U.S., the German-language stage in the U.S. and German immigrant artists in the U.S.

Dr. Merrill has authored four books on related subjects and written forty-three articles and numerous book reviews and professional papers.

 

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